SO ENTRENCHED is Puerto Ricans’ belief in the mythical Latino bogeyman El Cuco that when first one, then another, teenage boy is murdered, natives of San Juan don’t doubt that this beast is the likely killer.
Lupe Dávila, on the other hand, a ‘Gringa Rican’ from Vermont newly arrived on holiday in the Caribbean, is not nearly so easily convinced. Surely in the 21st century people don’t actually believe that an imaginary monster wielded as a threat over misbehaving children is roaming the city’s streets?
Yet the deaths do seem to be frustrating the best investigative efforts of Lupe’s uncle, police chief Esteban.
When Lupe meets Javier, a longtime friend of the two dead youths, a side of San Juan seen by few foreign tourists begins to reveal itself. In the tattered remnants of the El Rubí neighbourhood with its delectable street food and peeling, colourful façades, in the garbage-strewn alleyways and crumbling warehouses dominated by a rampant drug trade, and in the ultra-glamorous ocean-front condominium of international reggaetón superstar Papi Gringo, Lupe finds the most extreme of contrasts.
Could the common denominator in these two horrific crimes be an informal quintet dubbed by their mothers Los Cangrejos (The Crabs) – five male babies born within a few days of each other under the star sign Cancer and raised almost as brothers? If so, could Javier’s life also be at risk?
Both young men died literally on the eve of turning 18 so, with his own birthday looming, Javier – now clean and sober and working to support community programs run by his parish priest – begins to think back over his years of drug abuse and the meaning behind the lyrics of Papi Gringo’s new hit song, “Retribución”.
This novel is partly autobiographical, reflecting author Dávila Cardinal’s experiences as a fair-skinned North American with Puerto Rican heritage.